We don't see much diving fiction, besides maybe a few scenes from Clive Cussler novels. In The Sea on Fire, author Howard Cunnell wisely foregoes the diving-as-action approach and presents the emotion and sensation of diving that we feel through the main character, Kim. As a diver and someone who writes about diving, I was intrigued when I heard of this novel and how it would capture these feelings in words.
Kim is a man who needs to decide what he wants out of life. In his youth, Kim worked as a dive guide through many exotic locales with his buddy Garland. Now, married with kids, he yearns for those days. He works at a dead-end construction job in England, biding his time until he gets a call from Garland that they have a job, and off he goes, much to the chagrin of his wife. The latest call is a turning point for Kim. On the home front, his wife is fed up with him up-and-leaving at a moment's notice; Kim needs to decide whether he wants to be a father and a husband or if he wants to live life on the road.
Kim is one of those characters that drives a reader nuts. He consistently makes poor decisions (how does his wife keep getting pregnant? Contraceptive, people!) which are infuriating. Despite these flaws, Kim is an excellent diver, which we are regularly shown. Cunnell presents diving as an emotional metaphor for the way Kim feels about his life. Diving is his escape. From poverty, tyrants, responsibility, and yes, even his wife. His description of diving is spot on, from the feeling when you first hit the water, to the excitement of sighting sharks. For me, this is the strongest aspect of the book.
Most of the plot revolves around Kim's latest job, where he meets a larger-than-life character named Teddy King, and his muse Jody. Both capture Kim's imagination. Kim enjoys his time partying and diving, but soon finds that he can't keep his worlds separate, both physically and emotionally. King is one of those "stranger than fiction" characters you can't believe could possibly exist, yet probably does.
Kim's friend Garland Rain is an interesting character as well. You can find pieces of him in many old-school divers, particularly technical divers. For these people, decisions are black-and-white with no moral gray areas. Garland serves as the model man that Kim thinks he should be, although their relationship remains strained by Kim's increasing stupidity.
In many ways The Sea on Fire is a book about Kim hammering out his personal philosophy, trying to merge competing ideas of loyalty to his wife and kids, who he loves dearly, and his passion for adventure and life on the road---with the vices that accompany it. As these worlds collide he must sort through his emotional baggage to discover who he really is. The Sea on Fire is not an action novel. There is much navel-gazing and musing in Kim's head throughout. The plot itself is secondary to these concerns.
My main complaint is that the book tries to cover a lot of ground. Kim clearly has many issues to work through, including a dark secret from his past and his admiration for Garland, but one novel felt like not much time to work through all of them. With so many threads opened, though, it was hard to feel a sense of resolution for all of them. Maybe that's just life.
Most people reading this are scuba divers. If you are interested in the philosophical side of diving, and diving as a way of life, then you may be interested in reading The Sea on Fire. The plot moves along, straying between different genres, but in my opinion, is secondary to to Kim's struggle, which is verbalized via internal thoughts rather than through action. If this review seems scattered it's probably because this novel is hard to pin down.
If you are a voracious reader, you could do worse then to add it on your reading list, although I wouldn't recommend it for casual readers. If the diving aspects are your sole interest, despite the strong descriptions of diving, they are few and far between, so creative nonfiction like Deep Descent, may be a better place to go.